Phoning It In
Beth Thomas

Where I am supposed to be is Apple One Temp Agency in Oxnard. I’m supposed to be taking a typing test, a Computer Skills Assessment, some kind of exam with a calculator. I should be shuffling through job openings for Assistants and Clerks, making appointments, finding a J-O-B.

Where I am is the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at the Malibu Colony Plaza, sharing a slice of lemon tart coffee cake with Britney Spears. Me and her, we are both totally high, thanks to these four small pills: pink and white and cream and blue, like a baby shower.

Her face looks sculpted out of soap; she is two days into a seven-day detox fast that apparently does not acknowledge lemon tart coffee cake. She shovels it in with her fingers.

Fires that burned out last week are finally depositing their snowfall of ash. We open our mouths and turn our faces to the sky, trying to catch some on our tongues. Traffic on PCH goes hum hum hum, then stacks up like army ants when the stoplight turns red. Like most good things in Malibu, this Coffee Bean is really right on PCH, if you don’t get too technical about it. You can see Nobu, the Country Mart, Moonshadows, even Malibu Colony, Mel Gibson, and Sting from the PCH at 60 mph.

So Britney Spears, she has a baby on her lap. She has this baby but she is totally phoning it in: stuff some lemon cake in the mouth, kiss the head. Crumbs stick to the kid’s lips and shirt, but she pays no mind.

She is in the middle of a story: “And then I said, ‘Even a dog’s ass sees sunshine now and then, right?’ and Mama said, ‘You should keep the dog in the barn with the other shit-rolling livestock.’” She fans herself with a take-out menu and laughs.

I shake my head and say, “That leather-pant-wearing prick,” and slurp down the last of my iced chai latte. We’re talking about how hot it is for November, and about our exes who are, of course, psycho and not to be trusted. I look at the clock on my phone. I say, “Better wrap this up.”

She twists her mouth up into a grimace. “How long?”

“Minute or less.” I picture carloads of sweaty men rolling up with armfuls of battle-ready cameras and recorders and harshing our serene fucking moment.

“Wonder what’s taking so long.” She belches and then chokes something back down. It smells. Where I should be is at that appointment, finding a way to make an honest living. I should be saying “Yes, ma’am” to a lady in a beige pantsuit sitting behind a cheap desk in a cubicle in a run-down building on the corner of Esplanade and Oxnard Ave. I should be getting my shit together, turning it around.

“The wind is effing hot here,” she says, fanning with the menu, looking around. “Where is it coming from?”

I look at the red sky. “Hell? The Valley?” and this makes us laugh, hard. Then I want to yell at her, “You are dying! Can’t you feel it?” But I don’t. I kind of want her to yell it at me, but she doesn’t.

Mel Gibson walks by, and I open my cell phone and snap a picture. My phone is full of these useless images: celebrities doing nothing. But I get maybe two hundred bucks for one like that.

Without a word, I turn my cell phone toward the girl and she straightens up, closes her eyes and smiles and hugs the baby tight to her chest, brushes her lips against his hair. I take the shot; I’ll get enough for this one to keep me going for a month. She will look like a good mother if her fake smile portrays “blissful” and not “borderline incomprehensibly high.”

I put my phone away and she resumes her bad posture and we both laugh and then we’re laughing until we’re crying. My head aches. I should be taking a typing test.

The baby says, “Moon moon moon,” and points. There is something round and full and glowing yellow-white through the clouds and ash. He laughs at the sound: moon moon. Lemon tart cake crumbs fall out of his mouth and onto his lap.

This girl here with me, she wipes her own eyes with a paper napkin and whispers, “No, honey. That one is the sun.”

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